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The Steam Bath, or “Hamman”, in Christian Society

" Suàvem tan bé com si fóssem en un bany " [we were sweating as much as if we were in a bath]. This expression, twice attributed to King James I to describe his feelings during nights of insomnia or serious worries (Llibre dels feits, ch. 237 and 363), has not gone unnoticed in the study of the medieval bath in Christian lands. The relevant Spanish architect and conservationist Torres Balbás stated that "asides from bathing in washtubs or bathtubs, which was always practised... monarchs bathed in steam baths according to the Islamic fashion". He also recalled the passage from the Primera Crónica General indicating that, in 1248, the Castilian troops besieging Seville were sweating "como sy en banno estoviesen" [as if they were in a bath]. As Burns pointed out, "to sweat like in a bath" was, in all likelihood, a common phrase in the Spanish kingdoms of the 13 th century.
 
The standard public bath across the medieval Spanish kingdoms was, in fact, the hamman, or "Arab" steam bath. These baths were fully established in regions extending far beyond the kingdoms and dominions with Muslim communities, and were found in northern areas of the peninsula which had never been part of al-Andalus.
 
The archival documents from the Kingdom of Valencia, most of which date from well after the time of the conquest, allow us to outline a description of public baths that coincides with the hamman from classic studies in Islamic architecture. The building was essentially made up of three vaulted rooms: the cold, the warm and the hot rooms. The largest was usually the warm room, which was sometimes covered by a dome supported on a series of arched columns, with alcoves on the far sides. As for the hot room, it was next to the boiler, where there was an opening that allowed people to access the boiling water. The hot air produced by the fire of the boiler was spread out, by means of a hypocaust, or a shallow chamber under the floor of the room, and then went up inside the walls adjacent to the warm room, through chimneys called "escalfadors". The walls were solid and very thick in order to withstand the humidity and maintain the heat, and the only openings were the small passageways between the rooms and the star-shaped skylights bored into the vaults, which were covered with stained glass. Usually there was a vestibule, or entrance area, in addition to the bathing complex, which was a place to relax. The baths also contained service rooms, such as the boiler room and the room where firewood was stored.
 
This architectural diagram is consistent with the specific way in which the bath is taken. After undressing in the vestibule, the clients of the hamman gradually get used to the air, which becomes progressively hotter and more humid with each successive room. When they arrive to the hot room, their skin goes through an intense process of perspiration and moisturising, which is magnified by the steam produced by pouring buckets of water on the floor, which is blazing hot on account of the hypocaust. After this experience, the bathers can make themselves comfortable in the warm, central room—the most spacious of all—and begin bathing, with water mixed at the temperature of their choice, and scrubbing their skin, or having it scrubbed for them. The first room acclimatises the client when entering as well as leaving the baths, and it is the place where they get the cold water to mix with the water that comes from the boiler.
 

Quite some time ago, Torres Balbás stressed the similarity of the architectural diagram—the organisation of the baths into three rooms—in the bath houses of al- Andalus as well as those of the Christian kingdoms, regardless of whether the users were Muslim, Jewish or Christian. For this reason, problems of identification may arise, depending on the case. The exceptions to the rule are few. The Jewish miqwè, or ritual bath by immersion, is one of them, and thermal baths are the other.
 
We are aware of the attention given to therapeutic baths, especially after Arnau de Vilanova recommended them in his treatise, De regimini sanitatis , written at the request of James II. Rubió states that these norms confirm the good intuition that medical historians have attributed to Vilanova on the subject of hygiene, but, Rubió adds, "they do not explain the extraordinary popularity of baths among medieval Spaniards, and they completely ignore the idea of the bath house as a meeting place". An idea, as we have seen, that transcended the frontiers of al-Andalus and permitted the dissemination of the hamman throughout the peninsula.
 
In his work, Torres Balbás has gone so far as to state that
"Perhaps the great diffusion of corporal cleanliness, with the frequent practise of bathing and the profusion of buildings for this purpose, is one of the most significant examples of the influence of the Islamic lifestyle on Spanish Christian society. For there were not only baths in the cities taken from the Muslims..., but also in northern cities without an Islamic past."
 
We do not know, however, at what point this practice was adopted. In the opinion of the previously mentioned author, the oldest "Mudéjar" baths, or hammans, in Christian lands were built by Alphonso III (866- 911) in Zamora, on the Duero river. This was possibly due to the immigration of Mozarabs from Toledo who were already familiar with these kinds of establishments. However, it was not until the 12 th century, after the conquest of Toledo and the Ebro valley, when the mention of baths in Castilian and Aragonese cities became frequent.
 
The construction of steam baths in Old Catalonia has also attracted the attention of researchers. For example, the Banys Nous in Barcelona, which were seemingly built in 1160.
 
Although the building no longer exists today, this bath had an extremely long history, and was the subject of detailed descriptions in the 18 th and 19 th centuries, which have been compiled by Carreras Candí. These accounts clearly mention components such as the "sudadero" [sweat room] or hot room, and the "cuadrilátero" [quadrilateral] of the warm room with its alcoves, vaults, columns, dome and star-shaped skylights.
 
However, the bath house of Girona, significantly known for a very long time by the impossible name of "Banys Árabs", has survived to the present time. Newly constructed in the 12 th century (the first mention of it is in 1194), it was rebuilt in 1294, after having been destroyed by a French siege a few years before. In this building, Catalan architect Puig i Cadafalch identified one large cold room and three others, dedicated to the hot steam bath. Nevertheless, the so-called "gran sala freda" [large cold room] functionally corresponds to the vestibule, with its characteristic lantern and central pool, where, as a matter of fact, the author recognises "tres ninxols on els concurrents deixaven llurs capes i calçat" [three niches where patrons left their clothes and shoes]. The three successive large, rectangular rooms located to the left of this one, are the actual bathing rooms—the cold, the warm and the hot. They are recognisable by their shape, their layout and the thickness of their walls. For Puig i Cadafalch, this monument pointed to "el fet interessant de construir-se edificis de banys per mans cristianes a l'estil dels banys morescos" [the interesting fact of bath houses built with Christian hands, in the style of Moorish baths.].
 
In the areas seized in al-Andalus, some of the pre-existing baths were taken advantage of, and new ones were built following the same guidelines. In the first case, the restoration process was more or less intensive depending on the condition of the bath. Torres Balbás reminds us that, in 1254, Alphonso X authorised the nuns of San Clemente, in Toledo, to rebuild a Jewish bath there, as is shown in a preserved document, written in Arabic. Some of its clauses provide us a detailed description of the work needed, as well as confirmation that the bath's layout was the standard one for a hamman. As for the Kingdom of Valencia, there are some specific references to the reuse of bathhouses. This is the case of the aforementioned bath owned by Bernat de Llibià, located in his plot of land in Russafa (1308), said to be iam olim constructa et edificata , although nothing here guarantees that it was old enough to have existed prior to the conquest. Also, in the city of Xàtiva, we can find clear references to the restoration of old baths, such as the one belonging to Pere Trilles in 1283 ( aptetis et aptari faciaris ipsa balnea ), another one in the Moorish Quarter in 1292 ( faciatis reparari ), and the one of Joan Aliaga and Jaquet de Lió in 1298 and 1308 ( ad rehedificandum ). There was also a bath, located next to the Cocentaina door in the area of Benicabra, half of which Guillem Ricard sold, in 1307, to Ramón Pons, pro indiviso . This bath did originate from the Islamic era, ( proud antiquitus tempores sarracenorum erat asuetum ) and was in ruins ( cum solis, voltis que ibi sunt vel erum et parietibus superpositis firmamentis ).
 
We will now direct our attention to the phenomenon of newly built Christian baths. We have seen the situation in the city of Valencia. What we should add here is that this was not at all an isolated case. In the same kingdom, and during the same time period, coinciding with the reign of James II, we can find documented references regarding the construction of new baths in numerous towns–without going into the details of each specific quotation—such as, Xàtiva, Gandia and Morvedre, or in places like Manises and Vall d'Uixó. The Valencian examples, as we can see, were so numerous and so clear, that before Torres Balbás or even Puig i Cadaflach, the historian Sanchis Sivera could confirm in 1935 that the conquerors of Valencia "made buildings for Christian use in the style of Moorish baths".
 
The reproduction of the hamman in the Christian-feudal society of the Iberian kingdoms is definitively a widely documented phenomenon that leaves no room for discussion. However, we may wonder what happened on the other side of the Pyrenees. Setting aside the notion of therapeutic or thermal baths and focusing on the routine practice of corporal hygiene, we can point out that at the end of the 13 th century, there were twenty-six public baths in Paris. They were also steam baths, but they normally also included immersion in tubs. In the beginning of the 16 th century they were referred to as "Turkish Baths". However, the way the bath was taken did not include the gradual stages of the three rooms. The addition of bathtubs was also not characteristic of hammans. The baths in Paris seemed to combine steam heat with immersion. In the Germanic and Central European regions, dry heat was used, consisting of very hot rooms where perspiration took place without the watery presence of steam.
 
The best-known bath iconography comes mostly from French and Italian paintings and Gothic miniatures. These representations mainly favoured the immersion bath, which even became a recurring theme. This stands in sharp contrast with the near absence of hamman iconography in the Iberian kingdoms, a problem noted by Rubió when he said that "bath scenes, strictly speaking, are truly rare in the iconography of the Spanish Middle Ages". One of the consequences of this lack of iconography has been the use of representations of baths that were totally alien to the kind practised in Iberian lands during the Middle Ages to illustrate popular history books referring specifically to these regions. This lack of pictorial representations could have also contributed to the fact that many studies have overlooked the fundamental aspects which differentiate the peninsular baths of the Andalusian tradition from the standard ones in the rest of Europe. To sum up, we will recall that among the differences, the following are found: attendance to the public bath was not due to a medicinal or therapeutic motivation; the perfectly regulated way to bathe through the functional organisation of the three rooms; and the special group character of hamman-style public bathing which, in spite of the stereotypes, prevented it from becoming a place for sexual encounters.